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Attorneys for Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin are happy with the judge now presiding over their client’s murder trial in Fulton County, Ga. But the judicial selection process has left them shaking their heads in amazement. Bruce S. Harvey and John R. “Jack” Martin, who represent Al-Amin, had hoped to retain Superior Court Judge Stephanie B. Manis, who was originally assigned to the case. When Manis said the case would have to be reassigned, they protested. Now Manis is back on the case, after a drawing she conducted on June 21. It’s “the damnest thing I ever heard in my life,” says Harvey. “I want to be next to her [Manis] on every Georgia Big Game lottery drawing.” Despite their satisfaction with the results of the drawing, the defense had earlier raised questions about the “secret” way judges are selected for death penalty cases in Fulton County. Those questions remain, says B. Michael Mears, the director of the Multi-County public defender’s office. Here’s how Manis was chosen. Fulton County Clerk of Court Juanita Hicks says she was summoned to a meeting with Manis and Fulton’s Chief Judge Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore on June 21. “You don’t need to bring anything,” Manis told her. “We want you to pick a judge.” Manis, Hicks says, had brought small, opaque, unmarked envelopes, written down the names of each eligible judge on index cards, placed them in separate envelopes and sealed them. Two of the envelopes were marked “July.” They contained the names of two judges who won’t be eligible to hear death penalty cases after July 1, Hicks later learned. Manis fanned the envelopes out in her hand and held them out to Hicks. “I picked the second one from the left,” Hicks says. That envelope contained the name of Judge Elizabeth E. Long. But Long becomes chief judge July 1, and so won’t be eligible to preside over death penalty cases. Manis then set aside the envelope containing Judge Long’s name and another envelope containing Judge Gail S. Tusan’s name. Tusan rotates to family court on July 1. Hicks drew again. The second time, Hicks says, “I picked the third one from the end.” “I’m just dying to know who it is,” Manis said. The name inside the envelope was Manis’. This is how judges on death cases are selected in Fulton County. ’95 POLICY FINALLY FORMALIZED Fulton has had an unofficial policy since 1995 for picking judges in death penalty cases, but the policy was formalized only after Al-Amin’s indictment. The policy requires that in cases where the district attorney seeks the death penalty, a previously assigned case must be reassigned to a smaller pool of judges. In some counties, a computer program makes a random selection. In Fulton, it’s an old-fashioned drawing by hand. The unofficial policy exempted some judges from hearing death cases. These included Fulton County’s chief judge, both family court judges, any judge on the bench for less than six months and any judge with a current death penalty case assignment. During a May 31 court hearing, Manis said that death penalty judicial assignments until April were actually less of a random selection than they were a judicial rotation. Any judge who had recently completed a death penalty case, Manis acknowledged, was rotated to the bottom of the list of eligible judges. The Uniform Rules of Superior Court require a random selection. But despite its widespread application, and a state law requiring that local court rules conform, for the most part, to the state’s Uniform Superior Court Rules, the county’s de facto policy of assigning judges in death penalty cases was not formalized or published until April 14, 2000. It first appeared in print more than two weeks after a Fulton County grand jury indicted Al-Amin for a March attack on two Fulton County deputies that left one deputy dead. His case is the first to be reassigned now that the formerly unofficial policy has become a formal rule. WHO HANDLES ASSIGNMENTS? The new county rule actually designates the Fulton County court administrator, not the court clerk, as the official who handles the death penalty judicial assignments. But Manis said during a Wednesday hearing that she decided to swap the court administrator for the county clerk after Al-Amin’s defense lawyers, who were protesting the reassignment of the case, said the state’s Uniform Superior Court Rules assigned the duty to the clerk of court. After Manis won the reassignment draw, Moore — who witnessed the drawing — says the remaining envelopes were opened to verify that the other judges’ names were enclosed. “Manis was the one who established that procedure,” she says. “We still don’t have anything in writing,” Hicks says. “Once we do, we’ll be developing a procedure.” Manis won the Al-Amin reassignment two days before she issued a written order denying a motion by Al-Amin’s defense attorneys asking her to remain on the case. In that motion to retain Manis as the judge, Harvey suggested that county judges were attempting to change the rules after Al-Amin was indicted. “There are limits to what and when judges can ignore the demand for a uniform court system,” Harvey wrote. “By attempting to change the ‘rules’ after an assignment had already been made in accordance with one system, the judges now want to make another assignment in accordance with a system that has not been put in place in accordance with Uniform Superior Court Rules.” The local rule, Harvey noted, created “a continually shrinking pool of potential judges to whom a ‘random’ assignment is possible” and violated Al-Amin’s rights to a fair and impartial assignment of the case. “The attempt by the Fulton County Superior Court judges to create a procedure which would, no doubt, lighten the judges’ calendar of capital cases,” he wrote, violated Al-Amin’s due process rights. SELECTION SYSTEM CHALLENGED It was not the first time that the selection of a judge to shepherd the Al-Amin case to trial had been questioned. For more than a week after Al-Amin was indicted last March, no judge was assigned to the case as required by the uniform court rules. As a result, Al-Amin’s lawyers could neither secure court appointments to defend the indigent imam nor file motions on his behalf. The failure to assign the case to a judge as long as Al-Amin was in an out-of-state jail fighting extradition was part of another long-standing, unofficial policy by Fulton’s Superior Court judges — this one to delay case assignments for fugitives, Hicks said. Once court clerks were notified that Al-Amin was in custody in Alabama, a temporary employee neglected to enter that information in the county’s criminal justice database, she has explained. That oversight was corrected, the policy was abandoned and Manis was assigned the case following inquiries from The Daily Report. On May 31, over defense objections, Manis issued a verbal order to reassign the case. “I would like to keep jurisdiction over this case,” Manis said that day, “but I believe that I have a sworn duty as a judge … not to hear this case unless I draw it from the pool, and I believe that I have an obligation to follow the policy set out in Fulton county. “I don’t think that there should be discretion,” she continued. “I think that there should be a policy that should be followed in all cases. … I just didn’t have the liberty to make a choice.”

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